EFF lifts the lid on the secrets of the U.S. Army’s chatbots

eff lifts lid secrets u s armys chatbots sgt star

Thanks to a Freedom of Information request and some further digging, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has uncovered just about everything there is to know about the U.S. Army’s chatbot sergeant — including the technology’s past as a tool for catching pedophiles and terrorists on the Web. The revelations are part of EFF’s ongoing investigation into how the military interacts with and collects information from the public over the Internet.

Sgt. Star is the well-known virtual public spokesperson for the United States military, appearing on the Army Careers website and associated Facebook pages to answer questions from potential recruits. EFF has compiled all of his possible responses into a 288-page document that cover all aspects of military service and even the issue of whether soldiers can use umbrellas (yes, in certain circumstances). There’s also a page of usage statistics — Sgt. Star engaged in nearly 600,000 online chats in 2013.

The chatbot was introduced as a cost-cutting measure in 2006, designed to reduce the time that human operators needed to spend on online enquiries — the military estimates that Sgt. Star can do the work of 55 real recruiters. The company behind the bot, Next IT from Spokane in Washington, has also previously developed similar technology for the FBI and CIA in the past. In this case, chatbots were used to engage suspected pedophiles and terrorists, looking for signals that would point to suspicious behavior and allowing a federal agent to monitor 20-30 conversations at once.

EFF believes this kind of activity raises questions about data collection and online monitoring — once again, the balance between the need to catch criminals online and protect the privacy of the ordinary citizen is called into question. “What happens to conversations that aren’t relevant to an investigation, and how do the agencies weed out the false positives, such as when a chatbot misinterprets a benign conversation as dangerous?” asks EFF researcher Dave Maass.

“For all his character quirks, a user would never mistake Sgt. Star for human — that’s just not how he was designed,” continues Maas. “That can’t necessarily be said for other government bots. Military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have employed virtual people capable of interacting with and surveilling the public on a massive scale, and every answer raises many, many more questions.”

Computing

Forget Facebook: These are the 5 weirdest cryptocurrencies you can buy today

Though cryptocurrency may sound like a big and serious topic, a few of its implementations are actually fun. From Shiba Inus to feline coins and everything in between, we've rounded up the most eccentric digital coins.
Deals

Dell sale drops up to $895 off Alienware and XPS 13 laptops for grads

If you’re sniffing around for a new PC and are hunting for a deal, Dell has a couple of its best offerings – the mighty Alienware 17 gaming laptop and the super-sleek Dell XPS 13 ultrabook – on sale right now at pretty solid…
Computing

The best webcams you can buy are mostly made by Logitech

Webcams are a bundled feature in most laptops, but if yours doesn't have one or you're video conferencing on a desktop, you might need a standalone webcam. These are the best webcams you can buy.
Deals

Amazon deal cuts prices on the latest 11-inch Apple iPad Pro tablets

The Apple iPad Pro has been among our favorite tablets since its initial release in 2018. While Amazon and Samsung offer powerful products, no tablet can touch the iPad Pro's power and productivity. Score yours now on Amazon for just $699.
Computing

Time for a desk upgrade! These great stands will elevate and protect your laptop

The best laptop stands keep your laptop cool and elevated to a position where it's most comfortable to work. Stands come in many different designs with a number of added features, so here are our favorites.
Computing

PCI Express 6.0 is coming in 2021, and it’s already overkill

The PCI Special Interests Group began laying out the specifications for its next, next-generation motherboard socket: PCI Express 6.0. It will double bandwidth again and offer some clever efficiency-boosting technologies.
Cars

Volkswagen says no thanks to outsiders as it develops its own operating system

Volkswagen is taking software development into its own hands instead of joining forces with tech companies. It's assembling a team of more than 5,000 engineers to design an operating system that will equip in all of its cars by 2025.
Computing

Dive into the best VR experiences available now on the Oculus Rift

The Oculus Rift brought back virtual reality and put a modern twist on it. Grab your Touch Controllers, put on your VR headset, and jump into the fun with some of the best Oculus Rift games available now.
Gaming

Take a trip to a new virtual world with one of these awesome HTC Vive games

So you’re considering an HTC Vive, but don't know which games to get? Our list of 29 of the best HTC Vive games will help you out, whether you're into rhythm-based gaming, interstellar dogfights, or something else entirely.
Computing

What is Libra? Here’s what you need to know about Facebook’s new cryptocurrency

Facebook released a white paper announcing its new cryptocurrency, Libra, which it intends as a way to enable more people around the world to process online payments. Here's how the new blockchain technology works.
Computing

From Air to Pro, here are the best MacBook deals for June 2019

If you’re in the market for a new Apple laptop, let us make your work a little easier: We hunted down the best up-to-date MacBook deals available online right now from various retailers.
Computing

YouTube’s new HD music videos let you relive your youth in vivid detail

Relive your youth in vivid detail with YouTube's new HD music videos. The video sharing website will be converting your favorite, decades-old music videos from SD to HD and the first hundred of them are available to watch right now.
Computing

Ice Lake benchmarks show Intel isn’t done firing back at AMD

A leaked benchmark shows Intel's upcoming 10th-generation Ice Lake mobile chip outperforms AMD's Ryzen 5 3500U. These test metrics follow less than a month after Intel and AMD traded dueling keynotes touting their next lines of CPUs.
Deals

Dell drops big discounts on Inspiron 7000 and G5 gaming laptops for grads

Dell has been dropping deals on laptops all summer, and now in time for graduation day, you can score a Dell Inspiron 7000 15 laptop or a G5 15 gaming laptop at deeply discounted prices of just $830 and $900, respectively.